Published: November 13, 2020
At approximately 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85 will don his uniform, step out of Smith Hall, and head to Cameron Hall to address the Corps of Cadets as the interim superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. The significance of this action does not escape Wins. While he carries himself with a settled focus “on the things at hand,” he is circumspect as he considers the first time he stepped foot on post some 39 years ago.
In fall 1981, Wins was, as he describes himself, “a lean, tall, pretty decent basketball player” from Maryland who had been recruited to play Division I basketball by both the U.S. Naval Academy and VMI. Wherever he went to school would be significant for his family, because young Cedric would be the first in the Wins family to attend college. He decided to turn down the U.S. Naval Academy’s offer, explaining, “A career in the military didn’t interest me.” Immediately afterward, his father had a talk with him.
“I’ll never forget it. He sat me down and said, ‘I’ve got to tell you, I was really, really stunned when you turned down an opportunity to go to Navy. But what I want you to understand is, these guys at VMI, they have been talking to you and recruiting you since you started your senior season. They have offered you a full-ride scholarship, so more than anything else, that’s an indication to me they have plans for you. If I were you, I would think real hard about what’s being presented to you right now, because I think it’s a great opportunity.’” A phone call to Coach Charlie Schmaus ’66 sealed the deal, and in late August 1981, Wins arrived on post with the rest of the young men who would become the Class of 1985. Looking back, he realizes it was one of the most important decisions of his life and set him on course for a successful future.
Wins’ mother was a big part of his decision, as well. “What you do for the love of a mother is significant.” He explains that his mother was proud he was taking on the challenges of the VMI system, squared away and in uniform, although she was not without her concerns as she got a glimpse of his introduction to the adversarial system when she and her husband left the post on that Matriculation Day.
Following his first day as a cadet, Wins said his mind was in a bit of a haze from everything the system throws at you: When to wake up, what uniform you wear, the same haircut for every cadet, the expectations to be where you should be, at the right time, with the right attitude—all expectations required of everyone in his rat class. At VMI, there is no obvious separation of who you may have been before you arrived. “I realized I was surrounded by a bunch of other people who were probably in a similar haze. We were all going through this stuff together.”
One way VMI has of getting the new cadets, or “rats,” to know people of dissimilar backgrounds and perspectives is that rats cannot select their roommates. Rooms are randomly assigned, and it is expected that they will figure out how to work together throughout their challenging rat year. Wins remembered, “Very quickly and from the first day, the system begins to teach you about a life focused on teamwork and a willingness to support others, whether you know them or not.
“When they put me in my room with my three rat roommates, two were there with me, and one was a football player who was at practice getting ready for the fall season. We were told by a cadre corporal to put away our belongings, everything folded and squared away and in its proper place, the whole nine yards. When we finished with our own items, the corporal said, ‘Your brother rat is not here, you are responsible for the success of each other, and you are going to put away his stuff, too.’
“So, there I am, folding the underwear and t-shirts of some guy I’ve never even met, making him a success. It turns out that this guy is Charles Rogerson ’85. To this day, he and I and my other roommates, Darren Sawyer and David Estes, as well as several other classmates, remain extremely close. I mean, we’re like brothers. And, starting with the Rat Line, we’ve been there to support each other through good times and bad times for our entire lives.”
Wins believes VMI’s unique education method—including the Rat Line, which promotes personal growth; the regimental and class systems that foster leadership development; and the highly revered Honor Code, which is the foundation of character development—all have the potential to allow young men and women a period of “intense self-discovery.”
“It’s not something people typically go through as part of a college education; it’s much more. I mean, fundamentally, this idea about bringing a bunch of young people from all different walks of life, social and economic backgrounds, nationalities, races, and genders together and placing them on a level playing field with the same haircuts, uniforms, dorms, and just stripping away all they thought they were before coming here is an essential building block for revealing one’s character. With the foundation of what they learn in the Rat Line, the system builds them back up through shared experiences, allowing cadets to demonstrate for themselves the benefits of hard work, discipline, integrity, character, honor, and teamwork. Those are the things I’ve come to understand over the years as fundamental to the experience,” explains Wins.
“Many of the lessons in the process are so subtle that you don’t see it at the time, but as you have an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on it, you realize how the advantages of going through this experience can better prepare you for a multitude of challenges. That is what VMI did for me.”
Most embrace the lessons learned and the challenges while there because they want to succeed. “At some point, when you are learning to live by tenants such as the honor code, the discipline of time management, and watching out for others, you realize you have bought into this philosophy of personal honor—knowing what you stand for, the ability to lead under pressure. It’s about learning what type of leader you want to become. In most cadets, it shifts from choosing to be honorable because there is a single-sanction system, to the commitment to be honorable because you want to be that for the rest of your life.”
Wins believes it takes the entire four-year process to establish the traits that will last a lifetime. “This is not something you can do in two years.” It is first learning to follow, then learning to lead a small group of peers, and then leading the daily operations of the 1,700-strong Cadet Corps, all the while learning within a rigorous academic program. VMI is a place where first-generation college students have the same opportunities to test their mettle and push any self-perceived limits as their peers whose families have been attending college for many generations. When executed properly and appropriately overseen, that is the VMI experience we must maintain and strengthen.
While at VMI, Wins changed his mind about military service and pursued a commission in the U.S. Army. The man who initially did not want a military career stayed in the Army for 34 years and retired as a two-star general. During three decades of service, Wins was often reminded of lessons he learned at VMI. “I’ve been in situations during my Army career where things were occurring that really could have meant a soldier gets harmed or even killed. And, in those moments, you as a leader aren’t expected to collapse, fold, or shrink under pressure. In part, because my VMI experience taught me resolve; you have to demonstrate a confidence to the people around you that we will get through whatever challenge we are facing. This notion of not giving up, being accountable for failures, and charting a course forward is the mettle of who and how you are as a leader. These things build respect among your subordinates, peers, and superiors and can help move you through the ranks of leadership.”
“The beauty of VMI is that opportunity is available to a lot of kids who grew up like me. In my view, more than ever, the Commonwealth and the nation needs a place where young men and women from all different backgrounds can prepare themselves, challenge themselves, educate themselves, to learn about who they are, and get ready to go out into the world and do great things. That is why VMI exists.”Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins ’85 Interim Superintendent
So, why is it, during these challenging times that Wins is willing to leave his current life and return to the Institute? “I am forever grateful to VMI and the opportunity that I got to earn a college degree and play Division I sports. And although while at VMI I did not personally suffer from any racial animus, that may not be the experience of every cadet. As a military college, we have a critical role to play in producing leaders who are prepared to work with, follow, and lead a very diverse population. Not every student enters VMI having experienced that diversity. As VMI prepares its leaders, we need to ensure they understand the complexities of the world and how women, men, people of color, people of different genders, and other nationalities create the strength of what we can accomplish.”
When it comes to tackling the current set of challenges the Institute faces, “I will go back to what I learned at VMI and have applied over my 34-year career: ‘What is the right thing to do?’ First and foremost, it is to continue the unique method and framework of the VMI experience and ensure it is consistent with fulfilling the Institute’s mission and that we hold ourselves accountable when we aren’t. If VMI has some blind spots that create inconsistency with preparing our young leaders for the diverse world they will face—a world where we treat our teammates with dignity and respect regardless of their race, sex, gender, or religious beliefs; a world that requires broad and diverse perspectives to remain strong—then we must own it and adjust.
“I believe without a doubt that VMI will get through this in fine fashion. I believe in the strength of its leadership, faculty, and staff. I believe in the continued support and advocacy of our alumni. And I believe in the young men and women who choose to come to VMI in order to immerse themselves in an environment that challenges them on every level and helps them learn and define who they are. I think VMI is going to come out of this better and stronger than ever before and continue to build on a legacy of success.”
Wins is laser-focused as he begins his new role as interim superintendent. “We must do the right things for the right reasons.” He continued, “As interim superintendent, I will focus on what is best each and every day for the Corps of Cadets and VMI. To me, VMI is all about the young men and women that it produces and has produced over its 181-year existence. It is about the scores of—well, more than 200—general and flag officers who’ve served. It is about the 11 Rhodes Scholars and the seven Medal of Honor recipients, the business leaders, doctors, lawyers, civil servants that this tiny college has produced. It is about the scientists and explorers who push the boundaries in their fields. It is about those who move through the ranks of human services to help the underserved. VMI is about our alumni who have repeatedly put others first before themselves. That to me is VMI. This college, using its unique educational system, has consistently laid a foundation for the lives of the young men and women—who choose to embrace the Institute’s system of training and learning.”
Wins has heard from many alumni, family, and friends and he realizes the concern about VMI’s mission and core principles being compromised by outside sources. However, he has the following message for those who care deeply about the Institute: “VMI alumni are some of the most generous alumni in the country. They appreciate what they got out of VMI, a great education, tools to thrive under pressure as leaders, and the lifelong friendships forged here. I ask that their generosity continue to ensure generations of young men and women can follow and receive similar educations. The Institute needs your resolve now.”
“I remember the alumni who would come to VMI when I was a cadet and tell us all about the stories of their time at VMI. Things have changed from the time they were cadets, but the core, the very essence, of the experience has not. We are going to change the things needing change, and we are still standing strong on those tried and true things that create leaders of character.”
As Wins sits back and looks at his life, he muses, “Yes, I have come full circle from my first step on post to my return now and the blur of challenges met, lessons learned, and mountains climbed in between. If you would have asked me or my parents on Matriculation Day if I would return to the role of superintendent of VMI following a rewarding and successful career in the U.S. Army, we all would have told you, ‘No, no chance! No chance on God’s green earth.’
“I am humbled knowing the opportunities VMI gave me—a knuckleheaded kid from Hyattsville, Maryland—to be a first-generation college graduate in my family and to have the opportunity to come back as interim superintendent.
“The beauty of VMI is that opportunity is available to a lot of kids who grew up like me. In my view, more than ever, the Commonwealth and the nation need a place where young men and women from all different backgrounds can prepare themselves, challenge themselves, educate themselves, to learn about who they are, and get ready to go out into the world and do great things. That is why VMI exists.”
Read Maj. Gen. Wins ’85 letter to alumni.View Here
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